Yes, God love us, yes, wants us to be happy and yes, He wants us to be successful.
But all of this comes on God’s terms not my own.
Unfortunately, too many Orthodox Christians have bought into the idea God’s love for them means God wants them to be happy and successful on their terms rather than His. We usually don’t say this explicitly.
But how often have we heard someone say “God doesn’t judge?” when what they meant is “Do what you want”?
Let me offer myself as an example.
I’m the pastor of a small mission on the campus of UW-Madison. Being on campus is important but presents a number of challenges. Pastoral challenges aside, it’s expensive to be right by the university. This means that my community will probably never be large, never have a great building. And while we are on campus for students—and my parishioners are enthusiastic about serving students—it is simply hard to get students involved in the life of the Church.
These challenges help me remember that true and lasting happiness and success only come from fidelity to what God has called us to do. AND NOTHING ELSE.
There isn’t an Orthodox Church that’s 100, 75, or even 50 years old that wasn’t started by the evangelical efforts of immigrants or first generation Orthodox Christians from the “Old Country.” Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Serbians and Orthodox Christians from all over the world, came to America and started churches.
For these missionaries, America was a fertile missionary field. They may not have done things perfectly or even the way we do today but so what?
They used what they had at hand to plant the Church in America. In addition to their faith, what they had was their culture and language.
While culture is important, even under the best of conditions it is always only nominally Christian. The reason for this is that culture–all cultures–is always a mix of different traditions.
That said, culture can be, and often is, our life in Christ. This is as true for American culture as it is for traditional Orthodox cultures.
But however important culture is, we need something more. Why is this?
While religious education and apologetics are both important, we need to be careful that we don’t confuse saying things which are true with “speaking the truth in love.”
When Jesus speaks to someone, even when He tells them a hard truth (“Go sell all you have”) He is speaking as someone who has a deep, intimate knowledge to the person.
When Jesus speaks, He speaks as the God Who has called that person “out of non-existence into being” (Liturgy St John Chrysostom) and Who knitted him together in his “mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13).
And He does all this so that we can grow and become Who He has created us to be.
September 16 (O.S., 3) 2018: 16th Sunday after Pentecost; Hieromartyr Anthimus, bishop of Nicomedia. Martyrs Theophilus deacon, Dorotheos, Mardonius, Migdonius, Peter, Indes, Gorgonius, Zeno, the Virgin Domna, and Euthymius (302). St. Theoctistus (467), fellow-faster with St. Euthymius the Great. St. Phoebe, deaconess at Cenchreae near Corinth (1st c.). Martyr Basilissa of Nicomedia (309). Hieromartyr Aristion, bishop of Alexandria, in Syria (3rd c.).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10 Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
Like shepherds, merchants were held in low repute by most of the ancient world.
A shepherd was all but synonymous with “thief.” Alone with the flock, shepherds (who were frequently hirelings), could easily help themselves to a lamb or a sheep. If confronted, he could claim the animal either wandered off in the night or was killed by wolves.
Given this background, it would have been jarring for people to hear Jesus refer to Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Contrary to all expectations, Jesus says of Himself that He is a shepherd Who will protect the flock and be faithful in His accounting to the Owner.
But to his listeners, this would have sounded as nonsensical as Jesus calling Himself an “altruistic thief”!
As with calling Himself the “Good Shepherd, ” Jesus referring to His disciples to be “profitable servants” inverts cultural expectations.
In the ancient world, hard cash was rare. Most of the economy ran on barter. Given the limited viability of bartered goods, profit like that in the parable was unheard of. While some individuals had more than others, the fabulous wealth like that of the profitable servants could ordinarily come only from corruption.
The truly wealthy, those who had large reserves of gold for example, were wealthy because they were able to exploit political connections. Emperors, governors, government bureaucrats, soldiers, tax collectors could all become wealthy because they all had the ability to exploit and extort others.
So when Jesus calls us to be “profitable servants”? This would have been as jarring as when He called Himself a Good Shepherd.
And yet, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are called to be His profitable servants.
Just as there is a way to be a good shepherd (John 10:11-18), there is a way to be a profitable servant.
We have all of us had the experience of feeling cheated. At some point, we all of us wonder if the merchant or the car dealer, the mechanic or contractor hasn’t been dishonest with us.
On the other hand, we have also all had the experience of making a purchase in which we felt truly cared for. It’s not for nothing that we use the phrase “goods and services” to describe the myriad economic exchanges we make daily.
The morally good way to acquire profit isn’t simply to meet the customer’s desires or needs. No, the morally good merchant, tradesman or professional also gives evidence of caring for us personally; of caring sincerely for our well-being and dignity.
Just as in the economic realm, the morally and spiritually profitable servant is the one who serves others, who fosters the well-being of his or her neighbor. This is the life to which we are called this morning by Jesus.
And like the servants in the Gospel, we all have talents that can be put at the service of others. For many of us–and this is important–those talents include technical knowledge. We are (or are preparing to be) scientists, professors, attorneys, business people, health care professionals, and teachers.
We all of us have technical expertise and in our baptism, Jesus has called us to put these not just at the service of others but to use them for their salvation. Whatever trade or profession, the skills we possess are meant to help others come to know and follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and witnesses in the Orthodox Church.
Let me pause for a moment here and say something that may sound harsh.
I think often the clergy fail to value properly the technical knowledge and expertise of the laity. Clergy tend, if I’m honest, to reduce the evangelical witness and pastoral life of the Church to the theology and the precincts of the church. While the fathers, the Creed, the Liturgy, the sacraments and the worship of the Church are all essential to life in Christ, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox disciple of Christ.
Whether clergy or not, we minimize the technical knowledge of the laity because we fail to appreciate the evangelical witness that is inherent to excellence in the trades and professions. Through the service the laity–the service all of you–provide daily in the workplace and the home, others are being prepared to receive Christ.
How does serving others, prepare their hearts to receive Christ? In many ways.
Think, for example, of the sense of gratitude you have when someone goes even a little bit beyond what’s required by their job. The server in a restaurant or checker in a grocery store who takes an interest in your day. The tradesman or salesperson who puts your needs before his or her own economic interest. The physician or teacher who speaks to you not simply as a patient or as a student but as someone he or she truly values and appreciates.
All of these experiences can lift us out of our selfishness and foster in us an experience of gratitude. Over time, these experiences lead us to seek the Source of this goodness we see in others. And we come to want ourselves to be kinder.
All of these experiences, in other words, can inspire us to faith in Jesus Christ.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! In baptism, God has given each of us, given each of you, talents that allow you to be profitable servants. Through the everyday exercise of these talents, God has called you to prepare the hearts of all you met to receive the Gospel.
God has called you, in other words, to be profitable servants through your service of others.
September 2 (O.S., August 2) 2018: 14th Sunday after Pentecost. Afterfeast of the Dormition; Prophet Samuel (6th c. B.C.); Martyrs Severus, Memnon, and 37 soldiers at Plovdiv in Thrace (304).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4 Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Like last week’s parable of the wicked tenants, the parable we hear this morning is directed at us. We are those who have been invited to the Wedding Feast of the King’s Son. We should see in each of the three groups warnings about the challenges we face in our Christian life.
First are those who, as we hear in the parable, make light of the invitation. Second are those who respond with hostility, and even violence, to the King’s invitation. Most tragic of all, however, are those who come to the banquet but hold themselves apart from the celebration. Let’s look at each in turn.
At least in America, open hostility to the Gospel is, thank God, relatively rare. But especially in an academic context like UW, it isn’t uncommon to encounter individuals who dismiss the Gospel as somehow incompatible with being an educated person.
For others, and this is the second category, the Gospel isn’t simply the superstition of the intellectual unsophisticated. Rather life in Christ is seen as oppressive, a social ill that needs to be eradicated or at least limited to the private sphere.
These first two groups are fellow travelers. The quiet contempt of the first emboldens the second even as the second confirms the first group’s feelings of intellectual and cultural superiority.
To be fair, while the hostilities are ultimately unwarranted and represent a serious distortion of the tradition of the Church, Christians are not always the best example of the truth of the Gospel. My own lapses in charity do more to undermine the credibility of the Gospel than the polemics of the so-called “new atheists.” Far too often my personality or my behavior isn’t as a bridge between the others and Jesus Christ but a wall. At times it seems my concern is not to live in such a way that reveals Jesus to the world but to hide Him from others.
If those who hold the Gospel in contempt or who persecute Christians are wrong, we who believe in Jesus Christ would do well to consider how our own actions and attitudes contribute to the situation.
This brings me to the third group: those who accept the invitation but who hold themselves apart from the Kingdom of God.
We will leave to scholars the debate about whether or not the ungrateful guest failed to come dressed properly or whether he refused the gift of a wedding garment. For the fathers of the Church, this is a secondary concern. Their primary concern is with the garment as a symbol of the grace of Holy Baptism.
All of us who have been “baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” as St Paul tell us (Galatians 3:27). Having been clothed in divine grace, what then? Do I take seriously my own vocation to be a son or daughter of God? Do I know what it means to fulfill my baptismal vocation? Do I even know that I have such a vocation?
For many Orthodox Christians, indeed for the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, the answer to these questions is “No.” This doesn’t, however, so much reflect indifference or hostility on their part but a lack of information.
For most Orthodox Christians, life in Christ begins and ends with participation in the Divine Liturgy. Without in any way minimizing the centrality of the Liturgy, life in Christ is much broader and deeper than the passive attendance at Liturgy.
Putting on my social scientist cap for just a moment, I suspect that the reason so few Orthodox Christians make attendance at Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion a priority is because the clergy–bishops, priests, and deacons–have neglected the spiritual formation of the laity. We–the clergy–don’t take seriously the vocation of the laity that each of us received at baptism.
But we all of us have a vocation!
At our baptism, God gives each of us gifts to use for His glory, the salvation of the world and our own growth in holiness. God has called each of us to be co-workers with Christ for the salvation of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9). And we gain our salvation through our faithful response to the grace poured out in our lives not only once at baptism but daily, hourly, moment by moment.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! How many Orthodox Christians, how many of us, know concretely that we have been called by God to work for the salvation of the world? How many of us realize–much less act on–that the vocation of the laity is far more than serving on a parish council, teaching church school, or singing in the choir?
All good things those they are, they don’t exhaust what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. We all of us have a vocation that was given in to us Baptism.
This vocation is nourished by the Eucharist.
This vocation s healed and strengthened by the other sacraments and the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church.
In the coming weeks, will look at that vocation in more detail. For now, though, ask God in your daily prayers to reveal to you the contours and content of your own baptismal vocation.